Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to farmers 50 per cent more profit over the cost of production if voted to power. And they did, with a thumping majority. But he doesn’t talk about his promise any more. In fact, the NDA government has, in an affidavit before the Supreme Court, clearly ruled out the possibility of raising the minimum support price (MSP).
Before he became the Chief Minister, while leading a farmers rally, Devendra Fadnavis had demanded the price of soyabean to be raised from the then prevailing market price of Rs 3,800 to Rs 6,000 per quintal, and that of cotton from Rs 4,000 to Rs 7,000 per quintal. But ever since he became CM he doesn’t talk much about raising farm prices. In fact, Maharashtra this year failed to provide even the minimum support price of Rs 5,050 per quintal for tur dal—and that too at a time when production increased manifold. Farmers had waited for weeks together in the mandis to finally sell the crop at a distress price of not more than Rs 3,500 per quintal.
When in opposition, all political leaders speak loudly in favour of farmers. They promise the moon, but the moment they come to power, farmers disappear from their list of economic priorities. For 70 years, irrespective of the party, the same pattern has prevailed. Meanwhile, over the years farmers continue to be driven to the wall. The Economic Survey 2016 tells us that the average income of a farming family in 17 States of India, roughly half the country, is less than Rs 20,000 a year. You can’t even raise a cow in Rs 20,000 a year; and knowing this income level is even less than a subsistence allowance I shudder to think how these farming families must be surviving.
The decimation of agriculture is all too apparent. The design is obvious. The Chairperson of the State Bank of India, Arundhati Bhattacharya, has made it abundantly clear how deviously the economic policies are designed to hit agriculture. She had expressed resentment at Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s decision to waive Rs 36,359-crore farm loan waiver saying that it leads to credit indiscipline, but on the other hand did not even bat an eyelid when pleading to bail out telecom companies which had accumulated Rs 4-lakh crore of highly unsustainable debt. Doesn’t this smack of double standards?
To keep food inflation under check, farmers are being denied the rightful price. In fact, farmers are actually being penalized to grow food. Let me explain. Between 1970 and 2015, wheat procurement rates had increased only by 19 times whereas the basic income of government employees in the same 45-year period was raised by 120 to 150 times; of college teachers/professors by 150 to 170 times; and of school teachers by 280 to 320 times. In addition, the employees get in all 108 allowances put together. Farmers don’t even get a single allowance. The match therefore is fixed against farmers. What the farmer doesn’t realize is that he doesn’t only cultivate a crop, he actually cultivates losses.
Despite the economists and agricultural scientists blaming low crop productivity for the agrarian crisis, farmers know where it pinches. As debt continued to mount, the spate of farmer suicides grew. In the past 21 years, over 3.18 lakh farmers have committed suicide; one farmer ending his life every 41 minutes. The tragic serial death dance was considered to be a sign of weakness, but in reality was a farmer’s unique way of making a political statement. Every death on the farm infuriated the farmers, their families. The simmering discontent had turned into outright anger. But political leaders have always failed to ignore the warning. Not realizing that the day farmers wake up, Indian politics will change forever.
In just three days the blockade of vegetables and milk to the cities in Maharashtra brought the farmers’ anger to the national headlines. Breaking away from the traditional approaches of blocking highways and squatting on railtracks, the umbrella organization which led the campaign in Maharashtra –Kisan Kranti— moved to instead stopping the flow of milk and vegetables to the cities. Disrupting the food lifeline to the cities is the right way to get attention, and this worked. In Madhya Pradesh, another group of young and educated farmers led by Aam Kisan Union, and supported by a little known faction of Bharti Kisan Union, too managed to evoke a strong response.
For the past 30 years now, I have watched with dismay how farm movements disintegrate after the launch of any big protest. Individual egos, ideologies, and political leanings have led to clashes among farmer leaders. Politics takes over. This was perhaps summed up best by what the former Chief Minister of Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal, is known to have told a delegation of farm union which went to meet him. He asked the farmer leaders did they know why no political parties treat them as a vote bank, and answered by saying because farmers are a divided lot. They either vote as a jat or a sikh or a Maratha but never as a kisan. Whether farmers are 52 or 60 per cent of the population, the fact remains they have never voted as Kisan.
I am therefore happy to see the emergence of a young and educated farm leadership. This is happening across the country. They have to ensure they don’t fall in the same trap as the old guard. Farmers are looking desperately for a new leader on whom they can have faith.
Back to issues, farm loan waiver is definitely justified. When SBI is willing to provide a bailout of Rs 4-lakh crore to Telecom companies, I see no reason why banks cannot be directed to write-of the same amount of outstanding loans to millions of farmers. In addition, the demand should include: